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Teach Design: Think Dumb

How designers are introducing the idea of “simple” to a group of high school students.

“People who think that small (dumb) things don’t matter have never slept in a room with a mosquito.” This is the mantra I’ve always used with my university students. It gets their attention, and it's a good way to look at the world we inhabit and the things we create. I don’t mean to be pedantic, but simple is just too complicated. We’ve all heard the saying “simplicity isn’t simple,” so to make things simple, I call simple “dumb.”

First let's be clear, dumb is not "stupid" because dumb, like stem cells, binary code, or tofu, can become just about anything. The beauty of dumb is that it is generally free, accessible and transferable. Dumb is playful and innocent. Dumb is digital thinking about our analog world. Dumb is bottom-up and networked. Dumb is open-source, modular, and scalable. And when it comes to working with material stuff, dumb turns out to be really smart.

It seems that when people go to college, especially design school, they become enamored with the obtuse and the complicated (which are often mistaken for the intricate and complex). I won’t go into what typically happens to design student’s expectations after they graduate into the “real” world (yikes), and their desire to make a meaningful impact on the world we live in is not a bad thing, of course. In fact, it is at the core of our TeachDesign program. However, students often go through complicated loops to generate complicated outcomes in their quest to make this impact. But as scientists, programmers, mathematicians, engineers, and toddlers have so often modeled: You can use the simple to achieve the elegant.

Why all this dumb talk again? I’m thinking about dumb again these days because our students in our TeachDesign program at McCallum High School have stumbled onto dumb methods and dumb materials to help them achieve their project goals. They’ve done this because they are unaware of the affinity for the complicated that awaits them once they begin university. They are using dumb materials and methods because, as I mentioned, dumb is free and available.

Our good friend and TeachDesign colleague, Chris Robbins, is somewhat of a Freegan, opposing wastefulness whenever possible. His compulsion was our students’ good fortune when he showed up to our first concrete test-pour with rubber-backed carpet remnants along with two boxes made from reclaimed wood that he had salvaged from frog’s recent office renovation and move. The students were to make these into seats, and as they began to play with these remnants of carpet, I was amazed to see that they not only saw the potentials but also how to use them. They began to achieve an understanding of what those things could be and how they could transform from flat to single and double curves just by pinning down certain parts of the sheet and by letting other parts of the sheet interpolate between those points. Anyone who’s ever modeled digitally knows the importance of splines and nurbs, but to the students, they were just letting the dumb material inform the way they were working.

Similar to Louis Kahn who famously asked "Brick, what do you want to be?", the students intuitively understood that the sheet wanted to be curved or lay flat but didn’t want to make sharp corners. Within minutes they were working with beautiful and elegant double-curving surfaces. I would bet that the complex math and geometry needed to describe these forms would make most of us curl into the fetal position, and yet here were high school students finding forms that would make the likes of Chris Bangle or Yves Behar giddy.

In retrospect, what happened on the day of the first test-pour was even more amazing than it initially seemed because the work appeared to be so simple, fluid, and effortless. In dealing with the reality of abstract, negative space along with the actual implications of flexibility and surface texture that were inherent in the materials, the students understood the power of imagination merged with material knowledge. As students were beginning to use the materials’ traits to their advantage rather than using brute force or overly complicated techniques to wrangle them into position, they began to remind me more of a judoka (a judo practitioner) than a boxer. This was about learning through doing; this was project-based learning in action. In addition to the art skills gained through diagramming, sketching, and drawing and the ability to prototype, they’ll be able to apply this type of Dumb thinking to other design challenges in the future.

But for now they are blissfully and productively unaware because they are too busy doing to worry about anything else. They are busy acquiring and testing knowledge about how stuff works and doesn’t work, how things are used by real people, and how to harness the innate potential for things to change to their advantage. They are learning from failure and embracing the accidental while learning how be agile when things go wrong. They are embracing the mundane and learning how to create beautiful things. And how sometimes it’s okay to think dumb.

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Photo (cc) by Flickr user shutupyourface

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